Image and likeness

In his Book of Disquiet, the eccentric Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa notes the horror that must have come upon the 19th century to realize the full meaning of the phrase “made in the image and likeness of God,” referring to human beings.

Why horror? The original Christian sense of the phrase referred to the existence of the soul and the essential concomitant characteristic of the soul: immortality. The literal interpretation of image and likeness suggesting consciousness, will, forethought, and agency, the sharing of the virtues of God, were concepts for theological specialists, and quickly yielded to popular sentiment as mere immortality.

Immortality came to dominate morality as a religious criterion because a divine economy must have a perpetual or inviolable integrity over the centuries and millennia, to assure that the principles of morality (if not belief) must be perpetuated, must parallel the immortality that theologians made absolute. Morality was subject to interpretation, but immortality was absolute and fixed, presumably in the mind of God.

The Hebrews and Jews of the Old Testament did not develop the concept of the soul or immortality, and saw the human likeness to God as the infusion of a pneuma or breath, a personality or expression, distinct from other beings, itself setting up the problematic image of Yahweh, often arbitrary, authoritarian, and vindictive, as the previous entries on Jung and Kierkegaard have shown.

Thus Jonathan Edwards, the American Calvinist preacher, in the middle of the 18th century:

O Sinner! Consider the fearful Danger you are in: ‘Tis a great Furnace of Wrath, a wide and bottomless Pit, full of the Fire of Wrath, that you are held over in the Hand of that God, whose Wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the Damned in Hell: You hang by a slender Thread, with the Flames of divine Wrath flashing about it, and ready every Moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no Interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the Flames of Wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one Moment.

What matter the other likenesses to the divine when immortality alone remains after death? Who in not, in Edwards estimation, not a sinner? What trifling device of confession and rebirth does he propose outside of authority, God’s or his? What is left to the individual soul except the consciousness of a thread, a hairline’s distance between God’s arbitrariness and the self, forever unannihilated?

With enlightenment, science, and (in the popular culture) secularism throughout the 19th century, the notion of immortality necessarily took on a more social context. The afterlife had been understood to be an abstract state, but how could it be understood as but an extension of present existence in its social and cultural context — not simply religious context as preachers like Edwards maintained, but even revolutionary or utopian thinking. The previous idyllic state of similar-minded villagers or aristocrats inhabiting heaven must give way as the masses, however pious, fell deeper into the evils of daily industrial life and therefore conceived of the blessings of heaven as more a contrast to the evils of quotidian life. Immortality as analgesic would have less attraction in popular circles, with the effect that defining afterlife would become more difficult and challenging, leading to silence on the subject outside of narrow religious circles. By the early 20th century, Pessoa could see that issue as more horrible to contemplate and work out than to ignore.

Many observers have seen image and likeness, and presumably immortality, as misleading paths for popular religion, bypassing a socially engaged alternative for a traditional one that safely conforms to silence about the morality of authorities and powers. Consequently, too, the issue of describing the afterlife distracts from the spiritual, numinous and mystical that transcends the universality of immortality, with the potential for redefining consciousness and afterlife. But the mingling and distilling that can be pursued now is difficult, time-consuming, and complex.

The desire for immortality is a vague human inkling but the burden of consciousness, an intimation but also a great arrogance. The desire for immortality may arise not from individuals but from societies and groups with specific goals or devices realized by the promotion of immortality to masses of popular and humble people. The solitary looking within sees what is available to self, what is capable in self-knowledge, what can be demanded by the self. The solitary leaves to the elements what may be the answer, or the framework of a speculation. The Buddha was right to refuse metaphysical speculation, and we can find the same sentiment not so difficult to appreciate, as expressed in the same 18th century of Jonathan Edwards, by the 18th-century English poet Alexander Pope’s “Ode to Solitude”:

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest! who can unconcern’dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mix’d; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.